Accessed 11 December 1999
Switzerland and the Looted Art Trade Linked to World War II
By Prof. Georg Kreis, University of Basel, Switzerland
With Hitler's accession to power, numerous German artists and collectioners of art found a refuge in Switzerland. The small State was at an advantage given its neutrality and the excellent international connections which it enjoyed. Encircled by the 3rd Reich, by Fascist Italy and by France, it thus played a central role in the movement of and transactions in objects of art. Its activities were manifested in two fundamentally different ways: on the one hand, Switzerland became a secure deposit spot, either temporary or permanent, for endangered works of art; and on the other hand, a country where the sale of works of art of a value more or less considerable, could be negotiated.
I. Situation at the outset
Switzerland played an important role as a neighbor to the Third Reich and also to fascist Italy because of Swiss independence and good international communications favoring movement and trade in art among other things. Stephanie Barron (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) wrote with reference to Helmut F. Pfanner ("The Role of Switzerland for Refugees" in The Muses Flee Hitler edited by Jarrel C. Jackman and Carla M. Borden, Washington, DC 1983, p. 243): "After Hitler’s rise to power, neutral Switzerland became a haven, albeit temporarily, for German artists (and collectors who emigrated to keep their collections intact), writers, musicians, actors, theatrical directors, and other refugees. Many settled in Swiss cities, hoping to pursue their careers with relatively little disruption. Some stayed only long enough to make arrangements to emigrate elsewhere in Europe or to Palestine or the United States. Some remained permanently; others returned to Germany after the war" (cf. below, p. 137).
This important art market role was played out in two fundamentally different ways: a) Switzerland became a storage site for endangered art, whether temporarily or permanently; b) It became a trans-shipment center for art deals.
II. Switzerland as an Art Storage Site
1. The best known case of this function being exercised was the temporary safekeeping of the Prado Collection which was threatened by the confusion of the Spanish Civil War. This was shown in Geneva in June-August 1939 before it returned.
2. There are also several cases of deposits being made which are not known publicly and are governed be discretion. They reside in private houses and in public collections where individual private objects or more substantial collections were kept safely during the war, mostly without storage costs being raised.
3. Collections which came to Switzerland with their owners form another category. The most prominent case is that of Robert von Hirsch (1883-1977), who transferred his first-class collection from Frankfurt to Basel in 1933 and bought the right to export it with a present to Hermann Goering (Cranach’s "Judgment of Paris"). Cf. J.W.W(ille) in "Masterpieces" from the Robert von Hirsch Sale at Sotheby’s". London 1978, p. 5. Another example is the fortunate fate of the Dutch art dealer Nathan Katz who could flee to Switzerland, thanks to Swiss mediation in 1941. Cf. A Venema, Kunsthandel in Nederland, 1940-1945, ("Art Dealing in the Netherlands, 1940-1945"), pp. 254 ff.
4. Any attempt to answer if unclaimed art objects are deposited in Switzerland would necessarily involve firms specialized in safekeeping. Since storage requires a lot of space and many firms have moved or rebuilt during the past 50 years, the likelihood of finding heirless objects is small. Art objects are more likely to have been placed in the hands of private acquaintances or sold at once.
III. Switzerland as a Market Place
1. The Gallery Fischer in Lucerne put on sale 125 paintings and sculptures described as "Modern Masters from German Museums" on June 30, 1939. This sale followed seizure in 1936 and 1937 of art categorized as "degenerate" in German museums. It had been displayed in a main exhibition in Munich and in a number of traveling exhibitions to alarm the German people. The sale abroad was intended to reap a financial harvest following the propaganda coup. Stephanie Barron, who in 1990 had access to the Fischer archives, provides the best documentation on this sale in an essay: "The Gallery Fischer Auction" in Degenerate Art: the Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany. Los Angeles, 1991, pp. 135-169. G. Kreis (see below) provides a slightly less comprehensive description.
2. Barron’s documentation allows one to identify the origin of all objects sold and in particular to check whether looted property from private ownership was put on sale as well as confiscated property from official sources (museums) and semi-official ownership (art galleries). At the time the action was contested for a variety of reasons. Yet there were very good and honorable grounds for the buyers’ activity. In her 1991 description Barron makes no criticism whatsoever of the 1939 purchases. Most went to private people ¾ mainly in the USA. Only a small portion went to public art collections, in particular the Liège Fine Arts Museum and the Arts Museum in Basel. One motive for buying was to keep these European works of art in Europe and in public hands rather than letting them disappear to the USA and primarily into private collections there.
3. The author of this paper has published a monograph entitled Entartete Kunst für Basel. Die Herausforderung 1939 ("Degenerate" Art for Basel: the Challenge of 1939) on purchases of the Basel public-art collection. A remarkable feature of these purchases was the authorization of a special credit by the cantonal parliament of Basel City with the Lucerne auction in mind. To the fury of the auctioneer, the museum director, Georg Schmidt, also bought a number of objects which had not been taken to Lucerne and had remained in Berlin. A substantial part of the paintings confiscated in Germany was sold directly by official intermediaries ¾ again largely to the USA. It is known that none of the 21 objects bought by the Basel art collection had been in private ownership.
4. The book by Lynn H. Nicholas, formerly a member of the National Gallery of Art staff in Washington, DC, indicates the extent to which Switzerland was central to art dealing during the Third Reich and/or the extent to which the Swiss were involved in this trade. It was published in 1994 by Knopf in New York under the title The Rape of Europe in its original English edition and in 1995 by Kindler, Munich, in a German translation. The author is now probably the best informed person in the field. Her
general description makes it possible to put events in Switzerland in this whole difficult field into perspective and cautions against overplaying their importance. According to this account, Switzerland played a relatively subordinate role all-in-all. Apart from some criticism of behavior in the second half of December 1945 (cf. paragraph 5 below), there is no reproach to Switzerland for having behaved in a questionable manner. The remarks of Erwin Leiser on this question (most recently in the Tages-Anzeiger of August 2, 1996) point in the same direction (cf. also E. Leiser in the issue of November ? 1987) on "Hitlers Kunstraub für Linz" (Hitler’s Looting for Linz").
5. Lynn H. Nicholas devotes some pages (pp. 544-551) to the most spectacular of the "Swiss" cases. This concerns property looted from the Paris collection of Paul Rosenberg which was taken over by Lucerne gallery owner Theodor Fischer and sold in part to Emil Georg Bührle (1890-1956). This story has been known for a very long time and has indeed been before the Swiss courts. There is an important contemporary source: two reports by a British official responsible for protecting cultural assets, Douglas Cooper of Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA): one of January 21, 1945, "Reports on Looted Works in Switzerland" and another of March 22, 1945, "Report on a Visit to Switzerland" (National Archives, Washington, and Getty Center, Los Angeles). Through Goering’s art adviser, Andreas Hofer, and art dealer Hans Wendland, Fischer had excellent contacts to the Third Reich. At the end of the war the Federal council called for any looted art to be handed in (the collecting point being the Museum of Art in Berne). With a Federal Council decree dated December 10, 1945 (Official Collection of Swiss Laws, 1945, pp. 1052-1056) the Federal Council implied that there would be compensation from the Federal Treasury for bona fide purchasers to the extent sellers in bad faith cold not be sued.
At much the same time the Federal Department of the Interior (a Dr. Vodoz is mentioned) must have implied to representatives of the Allies that an investigating committee would be set up to look into questions of looted art, but nothing came of this undertaking. As indicated in paragraph 4, Lynn H. Nicholas’ judgment of this question is crucial. Rosenberg was obliged to take legal action under difficult circumstances but won his case. On June 3, 1948, before the Swiss Supreme Court: the pictures had to be handed over. In July 1951 Bührle brought a suit for recourse against Fischer and the Federal Government. On June 25, 1952, the Swiss Supreme Court ruled against the federal government in a looted property suit brought by Fischer. An ensuing legal action concerning Fischer’s demand for a share in the compensation paid by Germany to Switzerland was settled September 2, 1958. The historian and television personality Thomas Buomberger drew attention to important aspects of this case in a television film in 1993 and went into detail in the Tages-Anzeiger of October 16, 1996. The origin of certain pictures led once again to debate when, to mark her father’s 100th birthday, Hortense Anda-Bührle allowed the Bührle Foundation collection to be exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in London from February 1 to April 9, 1991, after shows in Washington, DC, Montreal, and a Japanese city.
6. In the work referred to, Nicholas indicates in an impressive manner just how the war’s confusion and the way in which it put legal order in doubt gave art dealing an enormous boost ¾ especially in the Netherlands and France. At the same time he shows that this trade, even if it largely benefited from personal emergencies, was not primarily responsible for the distress involved. Nor did it in itself worsen the situation but in some circumstances actually eased it by giving the persecuted resources with which to secure their physical survival. Many such individual sales and purchases were no doubt transacted in and through Switzerland. One could only form a judgment on them if the detailed circumstances were known in each case.
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